Manager to Leader: What's the Difference?
Discover the 5 essential principles to seamlessly transition from a managerial role to exceptional leadership.
Career transitions are both exciting and challenging. Whether in the form of a promotion, expanded scope to your existing job, move to a new organization, or new company, transitions can enhance one’s career.
Few transitions are as difficult as transitioning from being a manager to a leader. Manager to leader - what’s the difference? There are overlooked prerequisites that make these moves hard and often result in missed expectations. According to Gartner, 49% of people promoted within companies underperform up to 18 months after promotion.
Becoming a leader requires a change in mindset, capabilities, relationships, and focus.
I share 5 principles to accelerate your next level of growth on your journey to becoming an exceptional leader. You’ll get smarter faster, be more effective, and succeed for yourself and your organization.
Recognize That Expectations Have Changed
The expectations of you as a leader differ from those of a manager. Managers are expected to be tactical and action-oriented. Leaders are expected to be strategic, visionary, influential.
Early in my career, I got a coveted promotion in consulting: engagement manager. One of my first assignments was to lead a team to craft the strategy for a multi-billion dollar merger.
I no longer simply executed the strategy - I set it. I was also responsible for managing client relationships, mobilizing and motivating my team, creating an environment for high performance execution, and managing upwards to senior leaders.
I learned quickly that the capabilities that got me to my role were no longer sufficient.
Change Your Mindset
Focus less on how to solve a problem. Focus more on defining and deciding which problems should be solved.
In the first two weeks of the project everything seemed to go awry. Client leadership were misaligned, bankers wanted to push up timelines, deal assumptions and deliverables were constantly changing. The scope, scale, magnitude of complexity, and responsibility felt overwhelming.
I needed some serious coaching. I called the Partner in charge of the project.
Me: “I’m managing the situation and stakeholders as best as I can. I’m quarterbacking, but the plays aren’t landing. Things are going south.”
Partner: “sometimes you need to be the quarterback. Other times you need to be head coach or general manager. Watch from the sidelines, observe the people and situation, and re-strategize the play”.
Anyone close to me will tell you that sports, especially American football is not my strong suit. But the analogy made sense. I was experiencing a new dimension of growth, one that felt familiar, yet distinctly different.
I needed to shift from running plays to recognizing when to shift roles and influencing the game strategy and dynamics.
As a manager, your focus is on designing process and tactical execution. As a leader, your focus is on aligning people, driving clarity, and influencing outcomes.
This requires you to think fluidly - zooming in and out of details, inferring patterns from various data points, and generating conclusions that lead to decisions. It also requires you to have the confidence to “call timeout”, regroup the right set of thinkers and players that can help you draw up new plays.
An HBR Study found that 70% of employees are most engaged when senior leadership continuously communicates strategy.
Expand Your Trusted Mentor Circle
Leadership is a team sport. While there are many books on leadership (Developing The Leader Within You 2.0, Good to Great) there’s no playbook for every scenario you’ll encounter. You’ll need a set of people you can trust and with whom you can bounce ideas.
Why should you have more than one person to reach out to? I believe in having a set of thinking partners.
You’ll encounter scenarios that will require you to have different leadership modes and outcomes. In one day expect to make swift decisions, learn a new domain, deliver tough news, or be an inspiring speaker. Each of these require different capabilities.
In my situation, I looked to the project Partner for coaching on overall leadership acumen. I also tapped subject matter experts in my client’s industry to sharpen my technical acumen and understand success factors for similar transactions.
Having a set of trusted mentors that you can reach out to and help you get smarter faster is mission critical.
Broaden Your Business Acumen
One of the most distinctive shifts from managing work products to leading an organization is making decisions that are good for the business as a whole.
Your performance is tied to the performance of the entire enterprise. This means you’re dependent on lots of teams and people to make you successful.
You’ll have a deeper sense of how you might partner for better shared outcomes. You’ll also learn to speak and understand the language of other functions. This is important as you’ll be in a better position to make trade-offs and explain the rationale for decisions.
In my scenario, I set a learning plan to broaden my perspectives. As I expanded my mentor circle, I asked for additional names of people with whom I should connect to learn more deeply about a topic.
Here’s my tactical plan that I recommend you leverage:
Chart out your plan to learn about functions beyond your own
And so on
Ask strategic questions
What is your team’s objective?
Who are your key stakeholders and partners?
How do you measure success?
Where do you fit into the broader business landscape?
Send a thank you note
Share your most insightful learning with you new business contacts
Share your findings with your team.
Providing your team with visibility and context are valuable gifts. Context boosts overall business intelligence and team morale!
Spend Time On What Matters Most
How you allocate your time and your presence is crucial for your effectiveness and for the success of the organization you lead. Where you spend your time is also a reflection of how you lead and what matters most to you -- which trickles down to the organization.
The key to spending time on what matters most is to make room for those things.
Critical question: how do you spend your time now?
In my example, I took an inventory of meetings I attended, activities I spent time on, and compared these to achievement points. I found that I needed to reallocate my time to more value added areas that enabled important priorities: reset strategy, align stakeholders, re-direct my team. (see principles 2, 3).
Read: How CEOs Manage Time
The transition from manager to leader is an exciting journey. It’s also hard work. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you simply took on a similar job with larger scale and scope. You took on an entirely new responsibility with a new set of performance measures and expectations. Be proactive about attaining the next set of tools for your success toolkit.